‘First Lady of the Organ’ records in Vicksburg|[05/29/08]

Published 12:00 am Thursday, May 29, 2008

When world-renown organ virtuoso Diane Bish wants to take her talents on the road, only the best equipment will do.

For her first trip to Vicksburg, the acclaimed “First Lady of the Organ” looked no further than the 1966 Aeolian-Skinner pipe organ at First Presbyterian Church to record selections for her upcoming DVD “A Musical Journey on the Mississippi.”

Vicksburg was the third stop on a weeklong ride aboard the American Queen to celebrate the 67th birthday of the organist with others in her Indiana-based Joy of Music nonprofit foundation. The route includes recording in churches with vintage organs capable of striking a worthy chord. Other stops included church organs in New Orleans, Baton Rouge and Natchez, Helena, Ark., and Memphis. “It’s a fine builder,” Bish said after wrapping up a set of hymns and gospel tunes inside the church sanctuary, likening the organ maker’s skill to those found in Europe. “The organs in Germany are especially well-made.”

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Her first trip to Vicksburg found her able hands bringing elegance from the keys, handling spiritual standards like Theodore Dubois’ “Grand Choeur” and Pietro Yon’s “Humoresque” with ease.

Bish’s career began early, playing on a 1925 Austin organ at Wichita East High School in her native Kansas. She studied under a litany of accomplished instructors, which in later years included French composers Nadia Boulanger and Mary-Claire Alain.

“She is to the organ what Van Cliburn is to piano,” said producer and travel co-coordinator Jay Caulk.

Onlinewww.dianebishtv.comBish was senior organist and artist-in-residence at the Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., for more than 20 years and developed a concert series, said to be a first, and created an annual church music workshop for musicians worldwide.

In the 1980s, Bish launched the Joy of Music television series. Appearing on 24 local and cable stations worldwide, most notably EWTN and PBS affiliates, the show features musical performances interspersed with narratives by Bish of the story behind each composition and the organ on which it was composed.

Her style has been lauded by critics as fiery and daring for an instrument generally associated with the reverent, sacred environs of church.

Bish’s hands have graced the ivories of organs worldwide, including a turn at the storied Freiburg Minster in Germany where she was the first American woman allowed to play.

In recent years, her television series and music releases have promoted what her bio calls the “king of instruments.”

Barbara Tracey, organist for First Presbyterian, admires the Aeolian-Skinner and Bish, saying the organist puts meaning in her music. “There’s always a message there,” Tracey said.